The Tin Pan Alley Horror
Get ready to say goodbye to parts of Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley, where everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols tried out their guitars in the shops and studios. The demolition squads are heading for the street and its alleyways, including Denmark Place, a row of battered terraced houses off Charing Cross Road which are about to be eaten by the Crossrail development. And so one of the worst crimes of the 20th century will become even more forgotten.
Simon Usborne of The Independent reminded me of this by running a story the other day; ‘The Spanish Rooms, also known as El Hueco (“the hole”), was an unlicensed bar on the top floor of No 18. Beneath it another club known as Rodo’s as popular with Soho’s Colombians. More than 150 people filled the rooms that night, talking and dancing behind boarded-up windows and locked fire escapes. Not long after 2:30am, on 16 August, John “The Gypsy” Thompson, a Scottish-born small-time crook who fancied himself as an East End gangster, accused the Spanish Rooms barman of overcharging him for a drink. After a fight, Thompson took a cab to an all-night petrol station in Camden, 20 minutes away. He came back to Denmark Place with a can of petrol, poured it through the letterbox and lit a match. Minutes later, 37 people were dead.’
I knew that the fire had moved with incredible speed. Firemen found corpses pretty much where they had been standing when the fire broke out. Some managed to smash their way into the guitar shop behind and used guitars to break out of the building. Experts took two months to identify all the victims, who came from eight countries.
I remember ‘The Spanish’ well because I was in it a few nights before the fire broke out, and I think I can help to explain why the fire caught everyone so much by surprise.
The barroom was long and narrow with an entrance at one end, running parallel to the street. Access was limited and the wooden staircase to it was very narrow, but the biggest problem was that inside was a row of tightly packed-together bench tables with fixed pew seating. In order to seat yourself several people had to first slide out to admit you. Once you were in place it was simply impossible to move unless those at the front were willing to climb out.
I also remember that there was no doorman, so that when you rang the bell they would throw the keys down to you. As a drinking den it was no seedier than, say, Eileen’s or The Troy, and we had no idea that it was especially gangsterish. We went because it was open and had its share of theatricals, so it was lively. At the time I worked with a theatrical agent who knew a dozen or so such clubs around it, including one in Little Newport St where Diana Dors’ husband Alan Lake cut up an opponent. The Spanish was, by extension, seen as part of Soho, in the way that the Phoenix Artists’ Club is to this day.
To put the tragedy in perspective, 31 people died in the King’s Cross Underground fire. Inquiries, services, documentaries and memorials followed, and Princess Diana unveiled a plaque. At Denmark Place there was no service. The only commemorative plaque in the area is devoted to the inventor of the diving helmet. The people who died were just ordinary men and women, all victims of an unforeseeable tragedy. One is remembered, while the other is swept under the rug.